For brands seeking to improve the customer experience across the entire customer journey, and increase customer loyalty and retention, many have changed their focus from customer satisfaction to creating an emotional connection. According to a recent Forrester report, emotion is the most important driver behind the customer experience.

Vesy Ivanova, a partner and head of strategy at Found Brand Agency, told CMSWire that smart brands are beginning to learn the value of emotion. “Emotional connection doesn’t need to rely on a series of well-executed interactions, it taps into the same neural networks as the relationships we have with other humans. This creates a longer lasting, more resilient relationship that allows for the occasional mistake and can evolve over time,” she said.

Just Exactly What Are Emotions?

According to the results of Iterable’s Holiday Quick Poll, 83% of those polled indicated that they were more likely to purchase from a brand that they have an emotional connection with. Additionally, the results show that those with higher incomes are significantly more likely to do business with a brand with which they have an emotional connection — over 50% of those making over $100K a year said they are “much more likely” to make a purchase when they connect with a brand. Emotions are a strong driver for consumers.

When we think about emotions, what are we referring to? Though there is no universally accepted definition of the word emotion, generally, emotions are considered to be feelings that are generated by our brains through a combination of cognitive appraisal and bodily perception. Though there are many feelings that we think of as emotions, scientists and psychologists believe that there are technically only 4 basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid, and angry — all other “emotions” are actually variations of these 4 basic emotions.

There are emotions that we consider to be positive, such as joy, satisfaction, belonging, security, happiness, and well being, others we tend to see as negative, such as anger, fear, contempt, irritation, disgust, sadness, loathing, annoyance, and those that can be either, such as excitement and surprise.

In terms of customer experience, many times when a customer interacts with a brand, they may experience a wide range of emotions that fall under each of these categories. The goal is to create an emotionally satisfying, positive experience that leaves the customer feeling happy that they did business with the brand. A Harvard Business Review research report entitled The New Science of Customer Emotions indicated that customers are considered to be emotionally connected with a brand when the brand aligns with their personal motivations and enables them to fulfill deep desires, some of which they are not even aware of.

Miya Knights, head of industry insight at Eagle Eye, shared her thoughts on emotional connection, and one very important emotion: affinity. She wonders if we've somehow overlooked the fact that how a consumer feels about a brand is as important a factor as price and proximity in their decision to buy? “Why have we forgotten about emotions? What about the impact on brand perceptions of those consumers who have been forced to trade up or down due to availability issues during the coronavirus pandemic, for example? ” she asked.

“Affinity, the emotional connection between a consumer and a brand that should be the underpinning of loyalty, is rarely even a part of the commercial discussion. If it is, the term is often used interchangeably with loyalty. This is a mistake,” Knights explained. “Affinity comes from an understanding of not only why customers buy from a brand, but why they like buying from a brand. This means the brands that know their customers the best have a better understanding of how to build affinity. This also makes good common sense.”

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What Are Emotional Motivators or Triggers?

The Harvard Business Review report listed over 300 emotional motivators including concepts such as “being seen as unique,” “enjoying a sense of well-being,” “feeling a sense of belonging,” and “having confidence in the future.” The motivators varied for customers across industries, segments, categories and brands, as well as the current phase of the customer in their journey, though they did identify 25 motivators that are valid across all categories and brands. The report referred to an emotional connection pathway that describes the phases of emotional connectivity that each customer progresses through:

  1. Being unconnected.
  2. Being highly satisfied.
  3. Perceiving brand differentiation.
  4. Being fully emotionally connected.

Their research indicated that customers who identified as fully emotionally connected are more than 50% as valuable as those who identified as highly satisfied customers, and concluded by emphasizing that it’s financially vital to align customer experience investments with those elements that have been shown to drive an emotional connection with the customer. By finding the emotional motivators that drive a brand’s target market segment, the brand is able to develop strategies to create personalized emotional connections.

The emotional triggers for car sales, for instance, can vary based on the motivations of the customer, according to Jim Dicso, CEO at SundaySky. Rationality may drive a customer to make a purchase, but often an emotional trigger is what finishes the sale. “Customers make many purchases due to rational reasons; for example, ‘I need to travel further than five miles, therefore I need to buy a car,’ or ‘My household needs internet access, therefore I have to purchase a fast internet plan.’ Emotion will carry weight for the type of purchase, its urgency and other factors as part of the decision, such as the excitement that comes from driving a speedy sports car, or the peace of mind driving loved ones in a vehicle with high safety ratings,” Dicso said.

“In terms of consumer engagement and customer connection, emotional motivators are the triggers that enable us to make decisions and take actions in response to something,” he explained. “It’s the common ‘think, feel, do’ approach to delivering content: ‘think’ is the reason for making a purchase, but how you ‘feel’ about what you’re buying is the emotional appeal — whether it’s conscious or not. And ultimately the goal of content is to inspire customers to take the next ‘best’ action along their journeys.”

The Emotional Connection Should Be Omnichannel

The omnichannel approach to customer experience is part of what facilitates an exceptional customer journey throughout all channels and touchpoints, including in-store interactions, social presences, phone calls, mobile apps, websites, email, and advertising. It extends a consistently exceptional experience throughout every touchpoint that occurs between the customer and the brand. “Brands that know their customers well can deliver consistent, relevant communications online, in-store, and across all the channels they use to engage. They can recognize their best customers and understand what kind of reward or experience will resonate in order to serve them better and find more like them,” said Knights.

To create an exceptional omnichannel experience that resonates with customers, consistency is the key. If they are on a brand’s website and the customer feels aligned with the values of the brand, and the experience is seamless, easy to use, and personalized, when they visit the brand’s brick-and-mortar store in person, they expect that same type of experience. If they are using the brand’s app, again, they expect to feel aligned with the values of the brand. If they receive an email from the brand, they want that experience to continue. If they receive a call from a salesperson from that brand, the experience should continue. And on and on — if their experience with the brand through all of its channels is consistently positive, their emotional connection with the brand will continue to grow.

Dicso recognizes that simply having a branded app is not enough — it needs to bring the same engaging, emotional experience to the customer as that of the brand’s other channels. “Companies need to mix engaging content that evokes empathy and conveys emotion with a captivating, interactive and visual digital experience, like video, to make that meaningful customer connection.”

“For example,” Dicso said, “if a customer logs in to a healthcare insurer’s mobile app and is prompted by a lengthy text update about the plan’s coverage, recent medical and out-of-pocket spend, it can risk being a dry and boring communication — at best, somewhat personalized to the member’s  name, and at worst, an endless scrolling experience that’s unengaging, confusing and prompts an immediate tap on the ‘X’ to close out.”

Learning Opportunities

Brand Perception: Identity, Mission, Values, Vision, CSR

“Investing in creating emotional connections with your customers requires understanding and continuously adapting to the values of your customer.” said Ivanova. “Emotional connection can be achieved through fewer, more meaningful interactions. The investment is in listening, agile communication and responsiveness.”

Ivanova recognizes that to create a strong emotional connection with customers, they must see that their own values align with those of the brand. “A key element of creating emotional connection and managing your brand perception is identity. The path to emotional connection begins with understanding not only your customer and their values, but also your own identity as an organization. Continuously checking in and perfecting how you project that identity, listening to your customer and communicating and demonstrating your responsiveness builds a really meaningful relationship,” she said. “It’s nimble humility. People don't expect brands to always satisfy them, just as the people in our lives don't always meet our expectations, but we respond very positively to being heard and to seeing improvement over time.”

Dr.Ted Sun, president and chief innovations officer at Transcontinental University, holds two doctorates, one in management and another in psychology, and is an expert in emotional intelligence. Dr. Sun said that brands need to connect emotionally through their core values. “Emotional drivers behind the customer experience: the basis of emotions come from our core values.  If we truly care about something, we will have ample emotions about it. If we don’t care, there’s limited emotions. If a customer experience aligns with one’s core values, it can have strong emotional connections. So the key is for businesses to identify the core values of its customers and then design the CX to reflect those values,” explained Dr. Sun.

The values, mission and vision, corporate social responsibility statement and customer perception of a brand all factor into whether or not a customer believes their own values align with those of a brand, but it’s also about the routine interactions that they have. Dr. Sun suggested that the emotional connection also has to do with whether or not a brand lives up to its commitment with a customer. “Create positive emotional connections: For example, a customer values integrity. The business can design processes that ensure that it does what it says within the time that it commits to. This can be done by training employees to make commitments to customers within a specific time frame. When the business delivers the product/service or something as simple as a piece of communication, they can create that positive emotional connection. A few of the basic common values can be designed into many business processes, regardless of the product/service.”

Brands Using Emotions To Connect With Customers

Psychologists have determined that when it comes to online emotional experiences, those that make a person happy tend to drive more shares, retweets and social mentions (we like to share what makes us happy), while those that make a person sad tend to drive higher click through rates (sadness makes us empathize with others).

Other emotions tend to cause other reactions. Anger tends to make people reconsider their perspective or find solutions. Fear, when used appropriately, can create a sense of loyalty. An example of a brand that uses fear would be the World Wildlife Fund, which produces commercial advertisements that cause people to identify a serious problem (ecological disaster, climate change, endangered species, illegal ivory trade, etc.) and become a part of the group that is working to solve the problem, creating loyalty to the brand.

Most of us have seen the ad from the ASPCA in which very sad looking and abused animals are depicted in various conditions, with closeups of the animals’ eyes looking directly at the viewer. They invoke a strong sense of sadness and compassion in viewers, and are designed to compel people to rescue animals from cruelty by adopting dogs and cats from shelters, and contributing financially to the ASPCA. According to The New York Times, the commercial, which originally aired in 2007, raised $30 million in the first two years after its release. The emotional impact of the advertisement has proven the value of emotion to brands, including non-profits.

Understanding the psychology of emotion can help leaders to better understand how the touchpoints where a customer interacts with a brand will create an emotional connection between the customer and brand. Different emotions can be used to create different emotional responses, depending on what the goals of the brand are.

“This year has been a time where emotions run high, and brands need to tread lightly when it comes to building emotional connections with customers,” suggested Dicso. “Emotional intelligence is important in brand messaging as part of the overall digital customer experience, and it doesn’t take a major overhaul to do well.”

Dicso said that now is the time to practice empathy with customers and community, because people have naturally been emotionally vulnerable. “COVID-19 has made it vital to prioritize empathetic communication over brand values right now. Those with a business-as-usual strategy risk seeming tone deaf and chasing customers away. On the other hand, those that show customers understanding and thanks — a realization that these are challenging times, appreciation for their support, and explicit changes in place for the customers’ well-being — will gain greater appreciation from customers and stronger loyalty in the future.”

Final Thoughts

The emotional connection between a customer and a brand drives most of the interactions that occur, including sharing content, clicking through, and making purchases from the brand. Emotion also drives customer loyalty and the quality of the customer journey through all channels. By understanding the psychology of emotions, and how emotional activators trigger certain emotions, brands can craft omnichannel experiences that are tailored to the brand’s goals, values and ROI, while improving the overall customer experience.